If you want to lose weight—or even maintain your existing weight—it’s beneficial to avoid glucose spikes or plan to burn that extra energy when they do happen.
So what causes some foods to elicit a rapid rise in our blood sugar while others keep it more stable? We’ll review what foods may increase blood glucose and why and what to eat in place of them.
What is Glucose, and Why Is It Important?
Glucose is a sugar that is used by your body for energy. Insulin, glucagon, and other hormones regulate its level in the bloodstream. Normally, insulin is secreted by the pancreas into the bloodstream to shuttle glucose into your body cells, where it can be used for energy or stored as fat.
When insulin sensitivity decreases, or your pancreas does not produce enough insulin, it can lead to hyperglycemia or high blood sugar.
Foods that are broken down quickly tend to be high in glucose (sugar). Eating them alone or in large amounts may raise your blood sugar quickly, causing a rapid spike and quick drop. While you may get a quick burst of energy, the resulting drop in blood sugar can make you feel tired and worn out.
Simple sugars, including pure sugar, honey, and other sweeteners, are the highest glucose foods and get used for energy very quickly. This also includes foods high in sugar, like cookies and cakes. They are broken down into glucose much faster than more complex carbs like whole-grain bread.
Eating a balanced diet that includes fiber-rich grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats will help keep your blood sugar under control, provide a consistent energy supply, and still leave room for occasional treats.
7 Foods You Didn’t Know Were High in Glucose
Sugary and sweetened drinks
Sugary drinks like soda, energy drinks, fruit juice, sweetened tea, and fancy coffee drinks tend to be full of calories, fat, and sugar. The majority have minimal nutritious ingredients in them. When drinking a sugary beverage, like soda, you often will not feel satiated and research indicates that these individuals often eat more food when drinking sugary drinks.10
The average sugar-sweetened soda or fruit drink often contains 150 calories, which nearly all come from added sugar. Studies show that drinking one of the beverage each day for a year while not cutting back on other calories, an individual could gain up to 5 pounds in one year, plus this habit could increase the risk of type 2 diabeties, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.11
Opting for water, green tea, or plain coffee is best. You can jazz up your drinks by adding fruit to your water, sprinkling nutmeg, cinnamon, or cardamon in your coffee grounds before brewing, and a sprig of mint to your tea.
Processed foods can often contain copious amounts of added sugars. This is very different from natural sugars. Natural sugars, like lactose in milk and dairy products or fructose in fruit are fine, but too many added sugars may cause a spike in blood sugar.
Sugars, such as corn syrup, are often added to food for flavor and sweetness, but they also help with the browning and texture of baked goods. Sometimes, they can help make nutrient-dense foods more enjoyable.
When enjoyed in small amounts, sweet foods can help improve our diets by making nutrient-dense ones more enticing and enjoyable.¹ However, most Americans consume more than they need, increasing their calorie intake and may cause some people to experience blood sugar spikes.
While sweetened beverages and baked goods are the most frequently consumed sources of added sugars, you may also find them in unexpected places like breakfast bars, condiments, sauces, and yogurt.
Added sugars are now listed on nutrition labels, making it easier to see what you eat. Compare labels and choose those that are lower in added sugars. Aim for no more than a few grams per serving.
White grains, rice, bread, and pasta
Grains provide many essential vitamins and minerals and are an important part of a balanced diet. However, refined grains that have the fiber stripped away are digested and absorbed quickly.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend making sure half your grains come from whole grain sources like 100% whole grain bread, brown rice, barley, and oatmeal.¹
It’s okay to enjoy some refined grains, such as white rice or white bread, just make sure you pair them with foods that slow down their absorption (i.e., protein and fat) and have a small portion.
Vegetables are nutrient-dense foods, and we know we should be filling half our plates with them. A recent observational study found that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of chronic disease, such as obesity, and death.² The exception was starchy vegetables like peas, corn, and potatoes, which showed no effect.
Does this mean you should never eat potatoes or starchy vegetables? Absolutely not! Potatoes are nutrient-dense and can certainly be included in your meals. Try to focus on lower glycemic vegetables most of the time and include things like potatoes and corn on occasion. When you do eat them, combine them with high-protein foods like beans, eggs, seafood, and lean meats and keep your portions to ½ cup or a small potato.
Some great alternatives are mashed cauliflower, winter squash, including butternut and acorn, and whole grains. They are all lower in the glycemic index and nutrient-rich and flavorful.
Fruit is a nutrient-dense food, and most of us don’t eat enough of it. But not all fruit is created equal. Fruits that are high in the glycemic index may cause a spike in blood sugar in some people.
This is especially true with dried fruit, such as apricots, dates, raisins, and cranberries. When the fruit dries, the sugar in it becomes highly concentrated and is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream, which may cause a spike.
Dried fruits are rich in fiber and nutrients so if you want to enjoy a few, have them with some nuts and seeds. You an try mixing them into steel-cut oats along with walnuts or almond butter to help slow down the absorption of sugar or opt for lower glycemic fruits like berries, grapes, and melons.
Pastries, cookies, cakes, and other sugary foods are wonderful treats but can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and provide little nutritional value. Because they are so high in sugar, they are digested and absorbed quickly, which can cause your blood sugar to spike.
If you want to enjoy an occasional treat, make sure you eat it with something high in protein and fat or as part of a meal to help slow down its absorption and reduce the risk of a blood sugar spike.
While not all fried foods are high in sugar, many are rich in carbohydrates and fat. From extra breading to the extra fat from the oil the food is fried in, fried foods contribute a lot of extra calories, carbs, and fat to your diet. One recent study found people who ate fried foods daily had a 55% higher risk of type 2 diabetes than those who ate them less than once a week.⁵
A good rule of thumb is to limit fried foods to once a week. You can also experiment with using an air fryer at home. It makes satisfying and crunchy treats like sweet potato fries, chicken strips, and even crispy vegetables like Brussels spouts or “fried” green beans without the extra fat.
What Are The Benefits of Stable Blood Sugar Levels?
Every cell in our body uses glucose, but some areas require more than others. For example, our gastrointestinal tract uses it to digest food, our heart uses it to push blood through our body, our lungs to breathe, and our brains use the most. Glucose spikes can take a toll on how much energy we have, how we react to stress and challenging situations, as well as how well we digest food, concentrate and even sleep.
While everyone responds to food differently, understanding how your blood sugar responds to food and exercise can help you maintain a good energy level. It may help stabilize your mood, and help you concentrate and sleep.
Using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) can help you understand how your blood sugar reacts to different foods. When paired with the Signos app, your CGM data will give you insights into how your body responds to different foods (and what you can do about the ones that cause you to spike).
4 Foods to Stabilize Insulin and Blood Sugar
You can enjoy many foods that will help stabilize your insulin and blood sugar levels. These are foods we should all be eating more of anyway, so it’s a good idea to focus on them first. They are nutrient-dense and low in refined sugars.
1. Whole grains
Whole grains contain the three main parts of the grain kernel. The germ is the seed that can sprout and form a new plant, the endosperm is the kernel's largest part and supplies the plant's nutrients, and the outer coating, the bran, protects the kernel.
A recent large systemic review found that people with a higher intake of whole grains had 13 - 33% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer.⁶
So, what is considered a whole grain? This can be tricky. Products that are labeled whole wheat, may not really contain whole grains. First, look for the Whole Grain Stamp on the package. It will tell you the percentage of whole grains in the product.
If the package doesn’t have a stamp, check the ingredient list for words like “whole grain,” or “oats.” If the grain is the first ingredient, is it likely to be a good source of whole grains.⁷
Here are some common whole grains:
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole grains bread
- Quinoa, brown rice, barley, wheat berries
2. Non-starchy vegetables
They add a burst of color and nutrition to your plate, but beyond that, they are high in fiber, lower in calories and carbohydrates, and are great to fill up on.
Fresh, frozen and canned are all great to include in your diet. Just look for reduced sodium or no added salt or seasonings and minimal fat. You can easily season them yourself. Some nonstartchy vegetables to try are:
- Leafy greens
- Winter Squash
3. Healthy fats
Just like carbs, not all fats are created equal. While it is recommended for most people to reduce their fat intake, that doesn’t mean cutting it out altogether. Some fat is actually good for us! It helps absorb other nutrients like antioxidants and vitamins and provides essential nutrients like vitamin E and antioxidants.
Fat also takes a few hours to be broken down into glucose and absorbed. So adding some fat to your meals and snacks may help keep your blood sugar from spiking.
Some healthy fats to use in place of saturated fats are:
- Avocado and avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Nuts and nut oils
4. High-protein foods
Like fat, protein-rich foods take a few hours to be broken down into glucose and absorbed into your bloodstream. They are also full of essential nutrients like amino acids, vitamin B12, iron, and healthy fats.
Choosing lean proteins in place of those that are higher in saturated fats, like fatty red meat, cheese and lunchmeats may help improve insulin sensitivity as well as reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.⁸
Seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon, trout, and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other metabolic diseases.
Beans and dried peas are high in protein and rich in fiber, which helps slow digestion.
Soy-based products are rich in phytoestrogens that have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and may help improve fasting blood glucose levels, although more research is needed to fully understand its effects on blood glucose.⁹
Foods that are high in protein include:
- Legumes: including black beans, split peas, lentils, navy beans, and soybeans
- Lean meat: including chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of pork
- Seafood: all seafood including salmon, trout, shrimp, tuna, and cod
- Tofu and soy-based products: soft and firm tofu, soy milk and yogurt, and soy-based protein products like tempeh.
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Topics discussed in this article:
- The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
- Wang, D. D., Li, Y., Bhupathiraju, S. N., Rosner, B. A., Sun, Q., Giovannucci, E. L., Rimm, E. B., Manson, J. E., Willett, W. C., Stampfer, M. J., & Hu, F. B. (2021). Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies of US Men and Women and a Meta-Analysis of 26 Cohort Studies. Circulation, 143(17), 1642–1654. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048996
- The University of Sydney. Glycemic Index Research and News. https://glycemicindex.com/gi-search/ Accessed October 19, 2022.
- Muraki, I., Rimm, E. B., Willett, W. C., Manson, J. E., Hu, F. B., & Sun, Q. (2016). Potato Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Results From Three Prospective Cohort Studies. Diabetes care, 39(3), 376–384. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc15-0547
- Cahill, L.E., Pan, A., Chiuve, S.E., Sun, Q., Willett, w.C., Hu, F.B., Rimm, E.B. (2014). Fried-food consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease: a prospective study in 2 cohorts of US women and men, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(2): 667–675, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.084129
- Reynolds, A., Mann, J., Cummings, J., Winter, N., Mete, E., Morenga, L.T., (2019). Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Lancet. 393(10170):434-445. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31809-9
- The Oldways Whole Grain Council. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101 Accessed October 20, 2022.
- von Frankenberg, A. D., Marina, A., Song, X., Callahan, H. S., Kratz, M., & Utzschneider, K. M. (2017). A high-fat, high-saturated fat diet decreases insulin sensitivity without changing intra-abdominal fat in weight-stable overweight and obese adults. European journal of nutrition, 56(1), 431–443. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-015-1108-6
- Glisic, M., Kastrati, N., Gonzalez-Jaramillo, V., Bramer, W. M., Ahmadizar, F., Chowdhury, R., Danser, A. J., Roks, A. J., Voortman, T., Franco, O. H., & Muka, T. (2018). Associations between Phytoestrogens, Glucose Homeostasis, and Risk of Diabetes in Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 9(6), 726–740. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmy048
- Pan A, Hu FB. Effects of carbohydrates on satiety: differences between liquid and solid food. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. 2011 Jul 1;14(4):385-90.
- Malik V, Li Y, Pan A, De Koning L, Schernhammer E, Willett W, Hu F. Long-Term Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and Risk of Mortality in US Adults. Circulation. 2019 Mar 18.